Road salt redux

Salt truck spreading the OTHER white stuff on Tuesday. (Inquirer photo by Tom Gralish)

This morning's story about the havoc that road salt creates in waterways generated a lot of comment. Mostly, people opined about how much salt we use, although one irate caller accused me of not wanting people to get to work.

It's an interesting philosophical debate. Just how soon after a big snowstorm do we "need" to get out?

One of my interviews was with Bill Hoffman, who is head of a snow and ice task force for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation officials. He's also chief maintenance and operations engineer for Nevada DOT. The guy knows salt, and we talked about differing expectations.

I had heard a statistic that the Mid-Atlantic uses about 30 percent of the nation's salt, and while he couldn't confirm it, he wasn't surprised. We're an urban region, with lots of roads. And lots of needs. A mountain pass in Montana can wait; a sick kid trying to get to Children's Hospital can't.

Other researchers are looking into the economic cost of snowstorms, which can then be compared to the economic cost of fighting them  and, I suppose, the economic cost of eventually cleaning salt from our drinking water supplies. Here's a link to a study that showed hundreds of millions of dollars in economic opportunity are lost each day that a state is shuttered by impassable roads.

Another cool thing happening with snow removal that doesn't have a think to do, really, with salt is "tow plows." Basically, it's a regular snow plow truck, but then it tows one or more additional plows that can be "steered" to adjacent lanes. Since there's just one truck -- and thus, just one driver -- it frees up staff to be more places at once. The new technique also saves on gasoline and emissions. Even though the one truck has to work harder to haul around multiple plows, it's not the same as several trucks hauling them around.

Another extra treat that didn't make it into the print story: Hoffman explained exactly how beet juice works. He compared it to spilling a soda on a carpet. In pretty short order, the spill gets sticky. Likewise, the complex carbohydrates in the beet juice also get sticky. So if you mix beet juice with salt brine, the brine stays on the roads longer. The beet juice also contributes to the drop of the freezing temperature of the water.